20. The Switches – Lay Down The Law
This year’s Britpop spot goes to this explosive (U.S.) debut. (Bigger names like Oasis and Kaiser Chiefs were in the running, but both are trumped by this south-of-London quintent.) The Switches are nestled comfortably on the younger Franz Ferdinand/Arctic Monkeys side of the Great Modern Britpop Divide: pub shout-alongs and dance floor rump-shakers. As opposed to the older, statelier, rainy-day-mope-in-the-bedroom style of Travis and Coldplay. Another factor that raises Switches above their early-twentysomething competetion is that they have a familiarity with their instruments, and avoid plunking away at the same ringing chord through the whole damn song. I guess they’re trying to sound like The Edge, but The Edge they’re not. Many of these bands (eg. Bloc Party, Tokyo Police Club) sound like they just picked up guitars about eighteen months ago for the sole reason of making themselves more attractive to the opposite sex.
KEY TRACKS: “Drama Queen” “Message From Yuz” “Lay Down The Law”
19. Hot Chip – Made In The Dark
The electronica band for people who don’t care too much for electronica (i.e., me), Hot Chip’s synthesized bleeps and squiggles actually seem to have a human heart beating somewhere within. The relentless drum machine party is also crashed by the occasional atmospheric ballad, which keeps the album from slipping into the numbing, soulless monotony that is the stock in trade that of others of their genre, and appeals only to those on Ecsatsy, or those that like things cheap, plastic and shallow.
KEY TRACKS: “Shake A Fist” “Ready For The Floor” “One Pure Thought”
18. TV On The Radio – Dear Science
“Beggars all description” is a phrase which is rarely used anymore, but it applies here perfectly. This is the hardest capsule review of my entire top 20 to write because there is no easy way to describe the music presented here. It’s like trying to bottle smoke or pick up liquid mercury. The vocals croon and rage by turn, and icebergs of classic R&B, funk, and hip-hop break the surface in an ocean of thrumming U2-style atmospherics and modernist electornic noise. (Are you happy, TV On The Radio? You just inspired me to write the worst musical metaphor in recorded history.) An album that’s easier to admire than to love.
KEY TRACKS: “Golden Age” “Halfway Home” “Dancing Choose”
17. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive
The Hold Steady’s one weak spot – the vocals – has noticably improved, with a little less raspy talk-singing and a little more melodicism. Their strengths remain in play: story-songs soaked in booze and desperation, a solid rhythm section, and a shredding lead guitar.
KEY TRACKS: “Sequestered In Memphis” “Yeah Sapphire” “One For The Cutters”
16. Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple
The fertile imaginations of instrumentalist/producer Danger Mouse and vocalist Cee-Lo once again harness up psychedelic soul to hip-hop beats. A little more disconnected and spaced-out than their debut, and continuing the thread of dark, eerie lyrics that belie the super-fun sunshine of the music (Cee-Lo has evidently not been cured of his paranoia and fragile mental health). Not as consistent as their earlier work, but still a nice chunk of ear candy.
KEY TRACKS: “Run (I’m A Natural Disaster)” “Going On” “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul”
15. Conor Oberst – Conor Oberst
This year’s fastest-maturing musician award goes to the Artist Usually Known As Bright Eyes. Oberst’s “solo” album continues the progression demonstrated on last year’s Bright Eyes album, leaving intolerable adolescent weepiness behind in the hands of those who seem to have no clue how to progress beyond it (i.e., the increasingly irrelevant Dashboard Confessional). Wistful without being too self-pitying (still, someone should keep him away from the steak knives lest we have another Elliott Smith on our hands), and grown-up without being boring, Oberst’s shivery, cinematic tales will keep you coming back to peel another layer.
KEY TRACKS: “Cape Canaveral” “Sausalito” “I Don’t Want To Die (In A Hospital)”
14. Ryan Adams & The Cardinals – Cardinology
Has Adams finally stopped genre-hopping and tossing out albums by the bucketload? Maybe. Adams-watchers have remarked that it’s been a whole year (gasp!) since the release of Easy Tiger, and his new backing band (at least new as of 2005, when they put out the excellent Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights) seems to have settled him into the classic-rock/country-rock groove where he thrives best. Perched on the summit of what came before, this album is the tipping point, and can easily serve as Adams’ entry ticket to the level of Neil Young or Gram Parsons.
KEY TRACKS: “Born Into A Light” “Let Us Down Easy” “Evergreen”
13. The Black Keys – Attack & Release
White people playing the blues is a dicey proposition. Try to be too reverent, and you get banal Starbucks mood music (Kenny Wayne Shepard, or every Eric Clapton album since he quit drinking). Try snazz it up with technical fireworks, and you undercut its simplistic purity, and end up just as banal. (Rest his soul, but Stevie Ray Vaughn was a fucking snooze. Seriously, does anyone get anything out of what he did apart from his admittedly amazing technical prowess?) So for the most part, it’s out of our performance realm. But The Black Keys’ two-instrument attack is not only not embarassing, it actually gets what the blues is supposed to sound like, without being a whiteface carbon copy. Another appearance by omnipresent producer Danger Mouse (there is one left to go) guides the Keys away from repeating themselves, and toward their best album yet.
KEY TRACKS: “Psychotic Girl” “Oceans & Streams” “Remember When (Sides A&B)”
12. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
Five guys on (mostly) acoustic instruments singing close harmony on songs that sound like they pre-date the Civil War. For me, they conjure up feelings of sunrise in the freezing cold, watching the crystal clear stars begin to fade after a night of staying up talking to friends or just listening to the wind. It makes me want coffee and a quilted jacket, or a feather bed.
KEY TRACKS: “White Winter Hymnal” “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” “He Doesn’t Know Why”
11. Kings Of Leon – Only By The Night
The Kings weathered “southern Strokes” comparisons for their punchy first two albums, then disappeared into tuneless sonic murk with last year’s inscrutable Because Of The Times. They have emerged a better band, harnessing their new-found experimentalism to the rock-solid southern boogie that was always their bread and butter (or biscuits and gravy, if you like.) The result is less like a punky Skynyrd and more like an arty In Through The Out Door-era Zeppelin.
KEY TRACKS: “Crawl” “Revelry” “Notion”